Only once has a Turkish side progressed as far as the semifinals in Europe’s premiere club competition.
In the autumn of 1988, Galatasaray, winners of Turkey’s old First League, slipped past Austria’s Rapid Wien in the opening round of the European Cup before ousting Switzerland’s Neuchâtel Xamax and France’s Monaco to set up a final-four encounter with Steaua Bucharest.
They were hammered 5-1 over two legs that April and the Romanian champions, inspired by the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, advanced to the 1989 final. In that final they were shellacked to the tune of 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan.
We’ll end the history lesson there—or, at least pause it.
The Galatasaray of 2013 is intent on making history in its own right, and with the likes of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder having joined a group of players that was already quite competitive, the Istanbul giants have every reason to believe they can match, if not exceed, the achievement of their forebears.
Drogba, in a man, is the personification of this confidence.
Having already made a splash in the January transfer window with the acquisition of Sneijder from Inter Milan, Galatasaray was presented with an opportunity to really put itself on the map. The unraveling at Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua made the former Chelsea striker suddenly available.
Galatasaray took that opportunity, and in the space of eight days was transformed from a makeweight in this season’s Champions League knockout round to a serious part of the conversation. Wednesday, it’ll host Germany’s Schalke at what is certain to be a raucous Türk Telekom Arena, and despite finishing second in their bracket during the Group Stage will be favored by many to make quick work of the struggling Gelsenkirchen outfit.
From a purely footballing perspective, the addition of a playmaker of Sneijder’s quality was likely the more important of the two transfers, especially as Drogba was always more likely to join up after the Dutchman had put pen to paper.
With striker Burak Yilmaz scoring at an incredible clip, (he has 18 goals in 22 matches in all competitions so far this season and scored 35 in 43 for Trabzonspor last term) Galatasaray was always going to be difficult to contain in the attacking third.
But Drogba’s addition has come as a psychological boost as much as anything else. Big, powerful and universally respected at 34 years old, he has won everything there is to win at the club level and delivered a performance for the ages in last year’s Champions League final, where Chelsea triumphed over heavily favored Bayern Munich on penalties.
If there were any doubts as to his goal-scoring abilities upon his arrival in the Turkish capital, they were put to bed when he scored just five minutes into his debut away to Akhisar Belediye.
The 2-1 win (Burak notched the winner) kept Galatasaray unbeaten in 2012 (they’ve lost just once since mid-November) and moved them six points above second-place Fenerbahçe.
Schalke, meanwhile, comes into Wednesday’s match a disappointing ninth in the Bundesliga and on a four-match winless skid. The club has won only once since Nov. 10—a stretch of 14 matches.
Talk about two teams heading in opposite directions.
The variance in form could mean more feasting in front of goal for Drogba, and a handful of goals in the Champions League would no doubt introduce comparisons—if not in physique, at least in influence—to former Galatasaray striker Tanju Çolak, who led his team in scoring on that run to the semifinals.
History, it seems, is always with us.